The Autumn Charm of Newport

Travel, Lifestyles Magazine, October 2008

Lifestyles Magazine, October 2008

Admit it.  When you’re thinking about a fall getaway, heading up to New England isn’t typically the first destination that comes to your mind, unless the word foliage is involved somehow.  A scenic drive through the Green Mountains, maybe.  But finding your way to a Northern seaside town in October?  That might seem…well…unnatural.  (After all, the geese are flying south at that time, aren’t they?)

But as most in-the-know travelers will tell you, sometimes the best vacations are taken off-season: the attractions are less crowded, the waiting times for a table at one of the in-demand restaurants are shorter, and hotels and bed & breakfasts offer excellent packages at very reasonable rates.  And as far as the “off-season” autumn weather of New England is concerned, it’s anything but off-putting; instead, it’s downright glorious, with its warm days of vermillion sunshine overlaid by occasional cool breezes.

Nowhere is this more true than at Newport, Rhode Island, the quintessential City by the Sea.  Although it’s the place where “summer” was first used as a verb (as in, “We summer at Newport”), it offers a completely different, and truly charming, experience in the fall.  From the downtown, where art galleries are interestingly juxtaposed with surfer gear shops; to east side, where the Victorian mansions that redefined Gilded Age opulence preside; to southern edge, with its pleasant beaches and wind-swept sand dunes, Newport is unfailingly fresh, interesting, and beautiful.

As America’s first resort town, Newport has (not surprisingly) lodging options for every taste and budget.  Waterfront hotels abound, including the Marriott and the newly built Hyatt, and condo rentals are generally easy to come by.  If you’d prefer a more historical experience, check into one of the many quaint and lovely inns or B&Bs dotted throughout the town, many of which date back to the 19th century or even earlier. As far as transportation is concerned, it’s best to have a car to get around in.  Public transportation is available but spotty, and you’ll appreciate having the freedom to come and go as you please.  That said, if you plan to stay on the island and don’t mind the exercise, consider renting bicycles; with an area of 11.5 square miles, it’s more than manageable.

For first-time visitors, one of the best places to begin a Newport vacation is on Bellevue Avenue.  There, you can tour one (or more) of the many palaces of America’s Gilded Age, all beautifully preserved in their marble and gold finery.  The grandest of them all is The Breakers, an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo of seventy rooms, which was the “summer cottage” of Cornelius Vanderbilt and his family (44 Ochre Point Ave.).  Also consider visiting the Astors’ Beechwood Mansion (580 Bellevue Ave.), where you can step back in time to 1891 as actors dressed as Astor family members, friends, or domestic staff conduct tours and put on seasonal productions.

While you’re in the area, follow the Cliff Walk, a 3.5 mile public access trail that runs along the natural shoreline, taking you right past the lawns of the Bellevue Avenue mansions.  Stunning views present themselves at every turn as you walk along the cliffs, and the path itself is full of interesting and beautiful wildlife.  Be sure to bring a cozy sweater for the cool ocean breeze and a good camera for the postcard-perfect vistas.

For lunch, head up to Castle Hill Inn resort (590 Ocean Drive), an elegantly restored Victorian mansion built on a small peninsula.  The food is delicious and fresh, the service is outstanding, and the view of the harbor is unmatched; it’s the perfect dining experience trifecta.  After lunch, wrap yourself in a warm sweater or blanket and curl up in one of the many Adirondack chairs on Castle Hill’s lawn to enjoy the ocean breeze and watch the sailboats pass by.  Indulge in one of their specialty coffees or, better yet, one of their fine wines.  Castle Hill is renowned for its wines, and is frequently awarded a position on the annual “best of” lists of Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator magazines.

In the warmth of the golden afternoon sun, plan to stop by the downtown for some seaside strolling and shopping.  Along the cobblestone streets and busy piers you’ll find clothing boutiques for all occasions and tastes, jewelry stores, resort wear, home décor and antiques, and art, glass, and pottery galleries.  With the exception of the occasional touristy t-shirt shop, the stores of Newport rightfully take pride in offering unique and intriguing wares.

One of the best places to appreciate Newport’s beauty is from the harbor.  At Bowen’s Wharf in the busy downtown district, you can charter a sailboat or yacht, or book a harbor cruise. Having no personal sailing experience, I opted for the latter and took a sunset cruise with the Gansett, a 50-foot passenger boat.  As the crew served mimosas and beer from the bar and hot, delicious “stuffies” (stuffed clams) from the kitchen, we motored at a leisurely pace around the harbor.  Our guide entertained us with a mix of local history and dishy gossip as we passed the waterfronts villas and yachts of the incredibly wealthy.  Especially memorable: our view of Hammersmith Farm, where Jackie Bouvier grew up and later married John F. Kennedy, and Fort Adams Park, where the Newport Jazz Festival is held each year.

When you’re ready for a little sustenance, options abound. Newport’s dining establishments range from haute cuisine to pizza dives, but what it’s best known for—and rightfully so—are its seafood restaurants.  (There is something special about eating fried clams by the ocean.  I don’t know why, but it’s a truly sublime experience.)

Dozens of restaurants, including Pier 49, H2O and O’Brien’s, offer outdoor dining right on the water.  Later, cross the street to the Red Parrot for dessert or drinks.  If the October breeze is starting to feel chilly, their Butterscotch Bellywarmer (Godiva Chocolate Liqueur, Hiram Walker Amaretto, Butterscotch Liqueur and hot chocolate, topped with whipped cream, chocolate sauce and chunks of a Snickers bar) will surely set things right.

And, with their abundance of autumnal festivals and activities, October is perfect for visiting the farms of Newport’s neighboring towns.  Jamestown, Middletown, Little Compton and Portsmouth, which are known for their quaint villages and antique shops, are also centers of agritourism.  Think hayrides, corn mazes, apple-picking, giant-pumpkin patches, petting zoos, picnicking, hiking, and fishing, not to mention farmers’ markets teeming with local produce, maple syrup, and fresh jam.  Wine lovers can tour the region’s three award-winning vineyards, including the picturesque Greenvale Vineyards, whose tasting room is located in a rambling hillside manor house (582 Wapping Road, Portsmouth).

One of the best things about Newport, though, is just being there.  Yes, there are the beaches, the mansions, the history and culture, the shopping, and of course, the seafood.  But simply being there is getting away.  Find yourself a table at an outdoor café or restaurant, take a deep breath of the salty air, order your favorite things off the menu (I repeat: fried clams), and watch the world—from surfers to socialites, from young couples to yachters, from families to fishermen—pass by.

When you return to the October heat of Georgia, you’ll have plenty of adventures to recount.  And you’ll probably never even mention the word foliage.

Which, by the way, is spectacular.  But that’s a different travel article.